Listening for the saw-whet

hemlock throne

I want to see a tree, a tree, I’ll go mad if I don’t see a tree, the chief of baggage tells the writer-in-residence at Heathrow.


Something singing right at dusk; I go out to listen. I’d hoped it might have been a saw-whet owl, but it turns out to be a distant ambulance. Needless to say, hardly anyone whets saw blades anymore.


It’s staggering to realize that the great eastern forest was completely cut over without the use of chainsaws or skidders. All those axes! All those railroad lines snaking through the mountains! And the men cursing the trees in Italian, in Polish, in Czeck, in Hungarian, in English, in German, in Serbo-Croatian… Trees that were too massive for the sawmill were blown apart with dynamite and left to rot.


Learning to read the forest involves mastering a language of absence. The tree standing on a colonnade of roots preserves the shape of the stump on which it sprouted. On rocky ridgetops, a ring of boulders might mark the spot where an American chestnut once stood. Pits and mounds throughout the forest signal the violent overthrow of giants.


The words beautiful elephant come into my head. I open the anthology in my hand to a poem called “The Death of an Elephant.”


Mushrooms as colorful as unclaimed luggage. The elder tree turns a thousand dark eyes toward the earth.


Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees. This time, the theme is secrets.

8 Replies to “Listening for the saw-whet”

  1. I love the different — not tones — almost genres — I feel in each segment, and how they kind of hop on top of one another. The analogy that comes to mind (and I thereby distance myself from it) is that you raised a half-dozen diverse, active, and well-behaved children.

    I look at that paragraph on a language of absence, and I wonder how the world has gotten on for so long without its being written.

  2. I listened to owls in the middle of last night. It went on for a very long time and I fell back asleep to owl song…owl calls.

  3. The language of absence piece is amazing. That’s as fine as anything I’ve read by any nature writer. I liked the instance of the elephant synchronicity (if you want to call it that) too. That kind of thing always astonishes me a bit.

    1. It was definitely uncanny. As for the language of absense bit that you and Peter liked, in a way I’ve been writing that for at least ten years now. I could write thousands of words on the subject, as you can imagine. I didn’t even mention the clusters of chestnut oak trunks dotting our woods that also allow one to guess at the circumference of the stump they sprouted from.

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